Open Access and the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in Open Access, YouTube with tags , , on September 18, 2021 by telescoper

Here is the video recording of the Invited Colloquium at the International School Daniel Chalonge – Hector de Vega I gave via Zoom on15th September 2021, introduced by Prof. Norma Sanchez.

In the talk I give a review about the absurdity of the current system of academic publishing, about what Open Access publishing means, and give a short introduction to the Open Journal of Astrophysics, an arXiv overlay journal.

I’m sorry if the recording is a bit choppy but that’s an occupational hazard with Zoom recordings and rather limited broadband!

The talk itself lasts about an hour, but was followed by an interesting discussion session so although the full video is rather long (2 1/2 hours) I’ve put it all there on Youtube.

You can download the video here. A PDF of the slides may be found here. You can also view the slides on slideshare:

R.I.P. Tony Hewish (1924-2021)

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 17, 2021 by telescoper

It’s a grim day when I have three R.I.P. posts on this blog, but I learned this afternoon via email that Nobel Prize winning Cambridge radio astronomer Antony Hewish has passed away on 13th September this year at the age of 97. You can read a full obituary at his college website here so I’ll keep my own remarks brief.

Tony Hewish was one of the pioneering generation of radio astronomers who were involved with the development of radar during World War 2 and went on to apply the knowledge they had gained to explore the Universe. He is most famous for winning the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics (jointly with Martin Ryle) for the discovery of pulsars. Although the Nobel Foundation were clearly wrong not to give a share to Jocelyn Bell Burnell (who actually made the discovery). Indeed I would argue that Hewish should have declined the award unless Jocelyn Bell Burnell had been included. These errors should not however detract from Hewish’s scientific achievement in conceiving and constructing the Interplanetary Scintillation Array with which the discovery was made.

I’ll just add on a personal note that when I was a final-year undergraduate student at Cambridge (in the Lent Term in 1985) I took what was called a Major Option in Observational Cosmology which was lectured by Tony Hewish. As a matter of fact I still have the notes. Here’s the file opened at a random page:

It’s very out of date now, of course. A lot has happened in cosmology since 1985! At the time, though, I enjoyed the course very much and that affected my choice of potential areas in which to do my PhD. Although I ended up doing Theoretical rather than Observational Cosmology, at Sussex rather than at Cambridge, this course of lectures played a big part in me starting out on a career in that field.

Rest in peace Tony Hewish (1924-2021).

R.I.P. Thanu Padmanabhan (1957-2021)

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on September 17, 2021 by telescoper
Prof. Thanu Padmanabhan

It’s my sad task to pass on yet another piece of bad news. Renowned Indian physicist and cosmologist Professor Thanu Padmanabhan (known to all as “Paddy”) passed away suddenly this morning at the age of 64. I believe he suffered a heart attack at his home in Pune.

Paddy was not only a prolific researcher, with over 300 articles and many books to his name, but also a very gifted public speaker. Although we met and chatted a few times I never really got to know Paddy personally, but I shall remember him best for the many wonderful lectures I heard him give, at conferences and in seminars, the first being at Sussex when I was a graduate student there ay back in the 1980s.

The sudden death of such a highly esteemed colleague and friend has shocked his family and circle of friends, as well as the physics community in India, and is sure to have a similar effect around the world as news travels. Paddy travelled widely and had collaborators across the globe, including in the United Kingdom and United States.

All I can do here is to offer my sincere condolences to his family, friends, scientific colleagues who are grieving now, and for whom his loss will be irreparable.

Rest in peace, Thanu Padmanabhan (“Paddy”) (1957-2021).

R.I.P. Clive Sinclair (1940-2021)

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , , , , on September 17, 2021 by telescoper
Clive Sinclair, with the Sinclair C5

I heard last night of the death at the age of 81 of (Sir) Clive Sinclair. The news brought back a flood of memories.

I am of a generation that began secondary school (a grammar school in my case) before pocket calculators were generally available, so my first two years of secondary mathematics education including learning how to logarithms for multiplying and dividing numbers. After that, from the third year onwards, slide rules were in use but by the time I got I got into the 3rd form these had been phased out and replaced with electronic calculators. The first commercially available such device was produced by Sinclair. I didn’t like the Sinclair calculator, however, which had a reputation for unreliability so my first simple calculator was a Casio machine which, if I recall correctly was also cheaper. Later on when I wanted a more advanced calculator I went for the wonderful Hewlett Packard HP32E, complete with Reverse Polish Notation.

I got interested in computing at school too. The machines we had available were Commodore PET machines running BASIC. The first computer I ever had at home was the very simple Acorn System 1 which had just 1K of RAM, a hexadecimal keypad and LED display and was programmed in 6502 Assembly language. Curiously, although I have great difficulty remembering my own phone number, I can still remember quite a lot of the hexadecimal opcodes in the 6502 instruction set!

The Acorn System 1 went into production in 1979 but just a year later Sinclair introduced the ZX80. Although very limited by today’s standards, it was really much more advanced than the machine I had. It did, however, have a reputation for unreliability and it was actually quite difficult to get hold of one due to supply issues. A friend at school bought one, but it seemed to me flimsy and awkward to use, so I never bought one. Nor did I buy the successor the ZX81.

Because I had experience using machines based on the 6502 processor I thought I would buy a BBC micro when they came out as I used to enjoy bypassing the BASIC interpreter on the Commodore PET and running my own machine code. In 1982, however, Sinclair released the ZX Spectrum. This again was very limited by today’s standards but was a significant improvement on its predecessors, so I bought one. I took it with me to Cambridge when I began as a student there in 1982.

I remember also buying various peripherals for it, including a dreadful printer that required rolls of special paper.

The ZX Spectrum was a great success but soon other companies took over the market. It seemed to be in Sinclair’s character to invent things and then lose interest and he subsequently switched his attention to other inventions, many of which flopped, such as the ridiculously impractical Sinclair C5 which launched in 1985 and sank shortly afterwards. He never seemed to let such failures bother him too much, though, which is to his credit, and he didn’t seem to mind being ribbed about them either. Here he is on Clive Anderson Talks Back:

Despite his failures it seems very clear to me that Clive Sinclair was a pioneer in the technological revolution who played a major role in shaping the digital landscape in which we find ourselves today, forty years after the first home computers. My washing machine has much more CPU power than any of the 1980s home computers, but you have to start somewhere.

Rest in Peace, Clive Sinclair (1940-2021).

Views of Maynooth University Campus

Posted in Architecture, Education, Maynooth on September 16, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve been spending a lot of time doing various webinars and the like to help welcome new students to Maynooth University for the new academic year. During the course of this I discovered we had some semi-official photographs to use as backgrounds for Zoom or Teams. I thought it might be fun to share a few of them here as they provide nice views of some of the buildings you might see while walking around campus…

New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on September 16, 2021 by telescoper

Time to announce another publication in the Open Journal of Astrophysics. This one is the ninth paper in Volume 4 (2021) and the 40th in all.

The latest publication is entitled Black Hole Shadow Drift and Photon Ring Frequency Drift. The authors are Emmanuel Frion (Helsinki), Leonardo Giani (Queensland) and  Tays Miranda (Jyväskylä).

Here is a screen grab of the overlay which includes the abstract:

You can click on the image to make it larger should you wish to do so. You can find the arXiv version of the paper here. This one is also in the folder marked Cosmology and Nongalactic Astrophysics; although primarily in general relativity and quantum cosmology (gr-qc) it is cross-listed in astro-ph so it eligible for publication with us.

The end of the summer has been heralded by the arrival at OJAp HQ of a number of revised versions so I expect to be publishing a few more papers in the next few weeks!

Thirteen Years in The Dark!

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags on September 15, 2021 by telescoper

When I logged onto WordPress today I received a message that it was the 13th anniversary of my registration with them as a blogger, which is when I took my first step into the blogosphere; that was way back on 15th September 2008.

I actually wrote my first post on the day I registered but unfortunately I didn’t really know what I was doing on my first day at blogging – no change there, then – and I didn’t actually manage to figure out how to publish this earth-shattering piece. It was only after I’d written my second post that I realized that the first one wasn’t actually visible to the general public because I hadn’t pressed the right buttons, so the two appear in the wrong order in my archive.

If you’re interested in statistics then, as of 12.49 Irish Summer Time Today today, I have published 5634 blog posts posts and have received about 4.6M hits altogether. This varies in a very erratic fashion from day to day, but there has been a bit of a downward trend over the last few years, presumably because I’m getting older and more boring. The largest number of hits I have received in a single day is 8,864 (at the peak of the BICEP2 controversy).

There have been 37,465 comments published on here and 2,795,394 rejected by the spam filters. The vast majority of the rejected comments were from bots, but a small number have been removed for various violations, usually for abuse of some kind. And, yes, I do get to decide what is published: it is my blog!

While I am on the subject of comments, I’ll just repeat here the policy stated on the home page of this blog:

Feel free to comment on any of the posts on this blog but comments may be moderated; anonymous comments and any considered by me to be abusive will not be accepted. I do not necessarily endorse, support, sanction, encourage, verify or agree with the opinions or statements of any information or other content in the comments on this site and do not in any way guarantee their accuracy or reliability.

It does mean a lot to me to know that there are people who find my ramblings on this `shitty wordpress blog’ interesting enough to look at, or even read, and sometimes even to come back for more, so I’d like to take this opportunity to send my best wishes to all those who follow this blog!

The last twelve years have been eventful, to say the least, both personally and professionally. I started blogging not long after I’d moved into my house in Pontcanna, Cardiff. Since then I moved to Sussex, then back to Cardiff, and now to Ireland. More importantly we’ve seen the discovery of the Higgs Boson and gravitational waves, both of which resulted in Nobel Prizes, as did the studies of high-redshift supernovae. The Planck mission mission was launched, did its stuff, and came to a conclusion in this time too. Science has moved forward, even if there are many things in this world that still seem to be going backwards.

Reminder of talk today!

Posted in Open Access with tags , on September 14, 2021 by telescoper

Beards, Boxing and Bullshit

Posted in Beards, Sport with tags , , on September 14, 2021 by telescoper

I found out today that this year an IgNobel Prize has been awarded for a paper on Impact Protection Potential of Mammalian Hair: Testing the Pugilism Hypothesis for the Evolution of Human Facial Hair which was actually published last April in the journal Integrative Organismal Biology. This seems to be a bona fide academic journal, though apparently not one that has very high standards.

Anyway, the abstract reads:

Because facial hair is one of the most sexually dimorphic features of humans (Homo sapiens) and is often perceived as an indicator of masculinity and social dominance, human facial hair has been suggested to play a role in male contest competition. Some authors have proposed that the beard may function similar to the long hair of a lion’s mane, serving to protect vital areas like the throat and jaw from lethal attacks. This is consistent with the observation that the mandible, which is superficially covered by the beard, is one of the most commonly fractured facial bones in interpersonal violence. We hypothesized that beards protect the skin and bones of the face when human males fight by absorbing and dispersing the energy of a blunt impact. We tested this hypothesis by measuring impact force and energy absorbed by a fiber epoxy composite, which served as a bone analog, when it was covered with skin that had thick hair (referred to here as “furred”) versus skin with no hair (referred to here as “sheared” and “plucked”). We covered the epoxy composite with segments of skin dissected from domestic sheep (Ovis aries), and used a drop weight impact tester affixed with a load cell to collect force versus time data. Tissue samples were prepared in three conditions: furred (n = 20), plucked (n = 20), and sheared (n = 20). We found that fully furred samples were capable of absorbing more energy than plucked and sheared samples. For example, peak force was 16% greater and total energy absorbed was 37% greater in the furred compared to the plucked samples. These differences were due in part to a longer time frame of force delivery in the furred samples. These data support the hypothesis that human beards protect vulnerable regions of the facial skeleton from damaging strikes.

E A Beseris, S E Naleway, D R Carrier
Integrative Organismal Biology, Volume 2, Issue 1, 2020

This study has attracted a number of silly headlines such as “Big manly beards evolved so we could take punches to the head, study says” and a rebuke from the Beard Liberation Front.

My main problem with the article are (i) that the study itself is very flawed and, worse, (ii) that the claims made of a link to evolution are clearly bullshit; the latter is especially disappointing because the connection to evolution was explicitly caimed by biologists, who really ought to know better.

On point (i) I’ll just point out that the experiment didn’t involve beards or punching. The team built models – sixty of them – made of fibres and epoxy resin to represent human bone, covered in sheepskin to mimic facial hair. Those models were either ‘furred’ (‘full beard’ with 8cm-long hairs), ‘sheared’ (0.5cm length ‘trimmed beard’) or ‘plucked’ (‘hairless’ shaven face). Human hair follicles are four times as thick as those from sheep, but five times less densely packed, so a fleece roughly approximates a beard. The biologists then used a mechanical striker to repeatedly drop a 4.7kg weight onto each model to measure the impact and record the damage.

The results showed that furred models were better than both sheared and plucked models at taking the ‘punch’: a beard will absorb 37% more energy than a shaven face, for example, partly because springy hairs serve as suspension to slow down and soften the blow. As the researchers explain, “the greatest advantage offered by the hair is that it distributes the force of impact over a longer time frame”.


The problem is that this experiment isn’t at all realistic. Dropping a load onto a solid object would simulate hitting a dummy rather than a person; the latter can roll with a punch, the former cannot. In addition, many punches thrown in fights – as opposed to the boxing ring – are not straight to the chin but some variation of the hook that hits the side of the head causing it to rotate. Now allowing the models to rotate is a significant flaw in the experiment.

But the bigger problem with the study is (ii), that its results are interpreted as evidence for evolution on the grounds that facial hair represents a form of ‘sexual dimorphism’ leading to the suggestion that certain facial features evolved as a result of competitive fighting between human males .There is then the idea is that, just as a lion’s thick mane covers vital regions such as the jugular vein, beards help protect against potentially lethal punches to the throat and jaw. This is the so-called ‘pugilism hypothesis’ (from the Latin pugil, pugilis meaning a boxer) and this study says nothing at all about whether or not this is true. Even if you think the experiment is realistic, its results shed no light on the pugilism hypothesis. That is not a matter that can be settled by biomechanics but has to involve evolutionary biology, and specifically how the trait in question might have evolved through natural selection.

Charles Darwin’s 1871 book The Descent of Man discusses hair in great detail but didn’t make the mistake of equating the lion’s mane with human hair: although he argued that the thick hair of various mammals might provide protection in fights between competing males, he believed that human facial hair is a ‘secondary sexual character’ that evolved as a result of female preferences, and rightly pointed out that human populations differ in their ability to grow thick beards — not something you would expect if facial hair has a protective function. Not every biological feature is the result of natural selection either: a given characteristic could be an adaptation that evolved for a specific function, but it could also have no “purpose:

Anyway in reading this silly article I became interested in beards in boxing, given that boxers are generally clean-shaven. A ban on beards in boxing has been in place in many forms of the sport and still is in, for example, the Olympics. There has been recent discussion about a beard ban being a form of discrimination against, say, Sikh boxers and the amateur sport. I think beards are only allowed in professional boxing if both sides agree.

So why would anyone forbid a boxer to wear a beard? I don’t buy the argument about a beard cushioning a punch, for the reasons outlined above and for the fact that the gloves play the role of “distributing the force of impact” far more effectively than a beard would. Some have argued that a full beard may make it difficult for an opponent to locate the line of the jaw and hence strike the wearer’s chin. Another suggestion is that a beard would conceal cuts and bleeding and possible hinder medical attention.

I’m not sufficiently expert to say whether any of these are reasonable, but reading an article like this one by promoter Frank Warren convinces me that the major factor in the beard ban is just an irrational aversion to beards among the boxing hierarchy. In other words, pogonophobia.

One week to go…

Posted in Education, Maynooth on September 13, 2021 by telescoper

It’s Monday 13th September 2021 which means that teaching begins a week today. Gulp.

We still don’t really have any idea how many students we’ll have on our courses in the first year. The 2021 Leaving Certificate Results only came out on Friday 3rd September and the first round of CAO offers went out last week (on Tuesday 7th). Today at 3pm is the deadline for accepting these offers, so we expect to have some reasonably firm information later this week. There are two more rounds of CAO offers, though, so there may be some late arrivals.

This week we’re having some orientation and induction sessions for the new students. I recorded several videos to help students make their choices and am doing two live webinars about Mathematical and Theoretical Physics. I’m not doing one for our denominated Theoretical Physics & Mathematics programme because students on that do not have options in the first year. There’s also a live online Q&A session.

Lectures for first-year students don’t start until 27th September (two weeks from today) but there will probably be quite a few students who accept their places this week and would be able to start with the rest of the students next Monday. I think we’ll devise some optional sessions for them to keep them amused until teaching starts in proper.

Meanwhile the returning students (second, third and fourth years) have been enrolling. That seems to have gone alright and we now have a good idea how many we’ll have in those classes.

Unfortunately we still have the problem I’ve already, mentioned that for visa reasons we’re short of a member of staff, who is likely to have to start giving his lectures remotely. He has been allocated one second year and one third year module. I’ll wait a day or two to see if his visa comes through and if not inform the students that these lectures will be online. I suspect the students won’t be happy but it’s out of my hands. The visa application has been waiting for months for an answer from the Immigration Service in Ireland, which is a very poor level of performance by them.